Interview: Designer Daan Roosegaarde on smog, space and the power of clean air bubbles
The way Daan Roosegaarde sees it, cities have become killing machines that rain premature death down on inhabitants with ever-growing clouds of toxic pollution, and ever-growing bodies of research show him to be absolutely on the money. Through his pollution-fighting projects, the Dutch designer is bringing to light the importance of clean air, most notably through his Smog Free Towers that have sprung up in Europe, Asia, and soon South America. And as we learned in our interview with the inventor and artist, his penchant for cleaning up isn't limited to our home planet.
Together with a team of designers and engineers at Studio Roosegaarde, Roosegaarde is looking to fashion a cleaner future through projects inspired by the intersection of technology, urban space and people. The studio's portfolio is brimming with innovative ideas, including solar-powered paths that glow at night, kites that generate energy as they bob up and down, and responsive street-lighting powered by the headlamps of passing vehicles. There are also plans in the works for Smog Free Bicycles and Smog Free Drones, which would see his air-purifying technology go mobile.
Roosegaarde's passion for the environment and the inventive ideas it has spawned can be traced back to his roots as a boy in the Netherlands."God created the Earth, but the Dutch made Holland," one old Dutch saying goes and it is there, in the low-lying nation with a tradition of pioneering flood-protection technologies, that he says the natural and built worlds collide to inspire a particular approach to problem-solving.
"Every tree that you see is planted, so you already have this weird relationship between culture and the artificial, between manmade and nature, between technology and nature," he says. "I think that sort of explains why Dutch designers are so strongly represented all around the world, because we're just very used to making our world more personal, or more cultural, technology is in the DNA of our landscape.
"So we live with nature, we fight with nature," he continues. "You know I couldn't play outside before I had my swimming diploma, and only then I was allowed to play outside, just to give you an idea of how nature is present in daily life of Dutch people. So it's definitely a part of you. You're a little bit scared of nature, but you're also fascinated by it. So it sort of makes sense what I'm doing, it's an extension of that relationship you have with your environment."
Studio Roosegaarde is chipping away at a range of diverse projects inspired by the mantra of its founder, "schoonheid," which is the Dutch word for both "beauty" and "clean." But the smog that shrouds many of today's modern cities remains a primary focus.
"So in London, or Beijing, it's like 17 cigarettes per day that you inhale because of the pollution, without the pleasure of the nicotine," he says. "I think that's a bad deal. So the city is harming you as a human being. If you sum up aids, plus malaria, smog still kills more, and we're just talking about short term impacts, the long term impacts we don't know about. It's unacceptable. we should not accept it, it's very simple."
The Smog Free Towers are Roosegaarde's way of not accepting it. Billed as the world's first smog vacuum cleaner, the jumbo-sized air purifiers work by releasing positively charged ions into the air that cling to fine pollution particles floating around them. The ions are then sucked back inside the tower and the particles snaffled by a negatively charged surface. As a bonus, these particles are collected and compressed into cubes for jewelry, which the studio sells to fund its smog-fighting ventures.
"Of course one tower will never solve the whole problem for a city, but it is an important step, to create this sort of clean air park, a local solution," says Roosegaarde. "And at the same time, it is a symbol, an example, and a way to ask 'hey guys, what do we need to do to make a whole city smog free?'"
The towers were first installed in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, and have also been put to work in Beijing. Installed in September of 2016, Beijing's Smog Free Tower proceeded to clean 30,000,000 cubic meters of air in the space of 41 days, a volume equivalent to 10 times the city's 80,000-capacity Bird Nest Stadium. In January, a Smog Free Tower was installed in Kraków, Poland, where Roosegaarde says it is also being well received.
"Kraków is this industrial city and is most of the time even more polluted than Beijing, which is maybe weird to imagine but it is really true because there's no central heating, so everyone is just burning coal and other stuff in the fireplace in their homes, the air pollution is quite intense," he says.
"But the community are really interested in clean air," Roosegaarde continues. "They have big workshops and they have 'smogathons,' where they work with citizens to come up with new solutions, so it was the right time and the right moment. And you know this because it's in a public park, a very famous park, a very historical park, and they really see it as a clean air temple. They go there to hang out with the children, and the dogs, so it's almost like this weird David Lynch movie you're in, because you have this old historical setting and then there's this futuristic satellite tower, the aluminum of the Smog Free Tower. I like the contrast, and they really appreciate it."
Roosegaarde hopes by creating his bubbles of clean air in heavily polluted cities he can not only offer residents small pockets of respite, but set the wheels in motion for long term and bigger picture solutions.
"It will always be combined with the push toward government to make investments in clean energy, more bicycles, less diesel cars etc." he says. "I'm not a minister, I'm not a mayor, I cannot write a law that says 'green energy, tomorrow!' I'm a designer and an artist, so this is what I can do. This is my skill, and I think that is already powerful. And it's a very controversial topic, smog, a lot of people are hurt by it, a lot of people have opinions about it. I just stopped caring about opinions and started caring about proposal, so this is my proposal."
When it comes to stopping smog at the source, things get a little tricky, because it pours out of everything from cars to factories to farms to planes, and the recipe for this melting pot of pollution changes between regions, as Roosegaarde explains.
"For every city its different, the variety of pollution is different. It's like water, it tastes different in every city, in every country. The smog is the same, if you put it under a microscope there are different particles, different substances, which also makes it interesting. It looks different, it feels different, it tastes a bit different. Yes I tried. Be one with the art," he says with a laugh.
While tackling pollution in cities around the world is a monumental task, Roosegaarde's ambitions don't end there. He hopes to one day use some adaptation of the technology inside the Smog Free Towers to take the fight to space debris, something he describes as the smog of the universe.
"One of the projects I'm working on now is space waste, space debris," he says. Right now there are 29,000 particles floating in outer space caused by us, pieces of rockets, satellites etc. In a way, the smog of the universe. and nobody knows how to clean it or how to fix it. So that is something we are looking at now, can we sort of use the technology of the Smog Free Project, the positive ionization, the magnetism and the creative thinking to clean up the debris that is out there? But that's going to be five to ten years away, and a lot of prototypes. That's going to be a lot of work still."
In the meantime, Roosegaarde tells us the studio will soon be launching towers in Mexico, Colombia and India. More information can be found at the website below.
Source: Studio Roosegaarde